Old Turtle, The Presence

First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
Date: July 14, 2019
Scripture: Hinduism. Svetasvatara Upanishad 6:11, Luke 17:20-21, Acts 17:23-28
Sermon: “’Old Turtle’, The Presence” “Old Turtle” Author – Jessica Olien

Hinduism. Svetasvatara Upanishad 6:11
God is the one God, hidden in all beings, all-pervading, the Self within all beings, watching over all works, dwelling in all beings, the witness, the perceiver, the only one, free from qualities.

Luke 17:20-21
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.’

Acts 17:23-28
For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is this God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since the Spirit gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor the Divine made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For In the Divine One we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are God’s offspring.”

What do you think of when I say the word God? What comes to mind for you? What image or word? Anyone?

I believe our image of God is important. It is important to consider how we believe God interacts with us, with humanity, with creation. Is God disconnected and distant or is God ever present and as close as the air we breathe? If we take seriously the idea, we are all created in the image of God, it is crucial for us to think about what that image looks like, acts like, exists like.

Those questions were in part what came to mind as I reread the book Old Turtle by Douglas Wood. All of creation vying for the favor of God…so to speak. God is like me. No, he is like me. No, she is more like me! Who is God? What is God? What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

I believe these are critical questions for the community of faith because if we take seriously the idea, we are created in God’s image, it shapes and determines how we treat others, how we treat creation, how we encounter all that is around us. Even for those of us who think of ourselves as progressive, theologically speaking, it is important for us to ponder this now and then.

It is important because I believe it can be easy to wander back to the God we were raised with, if we were raised in the context of believing in God. Wander back to the roots of a more fundamentalist faith that puts God “out there somewhere”, intervening now and then with a miracle and leaving others wondering why not me. When times get tough. When we are struggling to understand. When death and disease, loss and hardship invade our lives… it can be easy to go back to that understanding of God to plead, to bargain, to wonder why not me.

I remember once after I had completed seminary, and my dad who had retired, was visiting us. Dad and I were sitting in the living room talking shop, so to speak. He told me he had a preaching gig coming up and was writing a new sermon. I said, “Oh, whatcha preaching about?” He said he was working on a sermon about what we deserve. He said he was working on a sermon from the idea that we do not get what we deserve. I said, “Okay, like what?” He said, “Well, you know. We don’t get what we deserve from God.” I said, “Oh, like what? What do we deserve from God?” He said, “You know. We don’t get what we deserve.” I said, “No, I don’t know. What do you believe we deserve from God?” He said, “You know.” I think he knew where he was going, I just don’t think he wanted to say it.

This was a guy, he and my mom, who were instrumental in grounding me in a God of love… and it seemed to me, for whatever reason, he was wandering back to a place very unfamiliar to me and my upbringing. We played the “You know,” game for a bit more and I finally said, “Let’s look at it this way. We often speak of humanity’s relationship with God like a parent, right?” He said yes. I said “Okay, let’s put this in our context. I am your son. What do I deserve from you?” He thought for a moment and finally said, “Like what do you mean?” I said, “You know.” touché … I said, “Well, what do I deserve from you? Do I deserve, as your son, to be loved by you?” He said, “I suppose so.” I asked, “Do my two sons deserve to be loved by me?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “I suspect there were times you didn’t like me very much. Certainly times when you didn’t like the decisions I made. And there were consequences to those times when I made poor decisions.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “However, did you ever not love me?” He said, “No.” I said, “Just like my two boys, there are times I don’t like them or their decisions and there are consequences to their poor decisions, however, there is nothing they could do that would cause me to stop loving them.” Dad said, “I agree.” I said, “Then why do we think we don’t deserve love from God?” … “It’s a scare tactic Dad, a way to make us afraid of God… I don’t believe that is what God wants from us.” Dad said, “True.”

We have this image of God that wanders back… that image of God sitting on a throne just waiting to zap us with a bolt of lightning when we do something bad or disobedient. And I believe that affects how we interact and treat others and our creation. It reminds me of Marcus Borg’s comment…

“People who think of God as a warrior may become warriors themselves, whether in a Christian crusade, a Muslim jihad, or an apocalyptically oriented militia. People who think of God as righteous are likely to emphasize righteousness themselves, just as those who think of God as compassionate are likely to emphasize compassion. People who think God is angry at the world are likely to be angry at the world themselves.”

I believe the rampant racism of our day, bigotry, misogyny, children in concentration camp conditions on the border, abuse of our planet and creation and the arrogance of denying climate change, greed and injustice are rooted in this kind of theology. When we believe we have the market cornered on God and those who are not like us do not… it becomes easier to oppress, abuse, hate, imprison, war against, kill… those who do not look, act, believe, or think like us.

It is why I love the book Old Turtle. A moving from putting God in a box of our own making to expanding the image of God to embrace all things and all people. It is the echo of Paul’s words in Acts we read this morning,

“indeed, God is not far from each one of us. For “In God we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are God’s children.”

We are immersed, buoyed in the very presence of the Divine, like a fish in the ocean. A God as expansive as the cosmos and as near as the air we breathe. This is the kingdom echoed in the words of Jesus from Luke this morning…”The Kingdom is within you.” Or the words from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, but only the one who sees takes off their shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

Borg would remind us this image, this being of God is about a panentheistic (God is “IN” all things understanding of the presence of God. Not pantheistic (God “IS” all things) understanding of God.

This conversation reminded me of an ancient tale when a teacher/rabbi speaking to his students asked the question, “Tell me, how do you know the moment when the darkness turns to light?” One student excitedly raised her hand, “You know the moment the darkness turns to light when you can look in the distance and see a palm tree and know it is not a camel!” The Rabbi shook his head. Another student raised his hand and said, “You know the moment the darkness turns to light when you can look in the distance and see a shrub and know it is not a dog.” The Rabbi shook his head. The room fell silent. Finally, one student raised his hand and said, “You tell us teacher.” The Rabbi stepped close to his students and said, “I will. You know the moment the darkness turns to light, when you can look into the face of your fellow humankind and see the face of the Divine.”

In John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God, Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, he writes of the Celtic image of thin places, those places, those moments when the light of the Divine is especially, profoundly evident. And he would say they are everywhere. He writes of Mary Oliver who speaks of “the light at the center of every cell.” The Celtic world celebrates this as the Light within all life. Oliver invites us to be aware of this Light and to live in open-eyed wonder of it, “To be dazzled,” as she says, and to see that “The Light is everything.” Her vision resonates with the Celtic prophet John Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century, who said the light of God is the “Essence of all things.”1

This image of the Light in all things is reminiscent of Saint Francis. For Newell, Oliver, and Eriugena all living creation are our sisters and brothers, our siblings. We are immersed in this Light if we will but take the time to be awake and aware, connected to all that is. The very Presence of the Divine, in all, with all, and through all. You are embraced, immersed, buoyed in the very Presence and Love of the Divine… just as you are. Remember that. It is So. Amen.

1 Newell, John Philip, (2014) Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, The Rebirthing of God, Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont